Sunday, January 27, 2008

Knock Knock

One of the privileges and pleasures of being a parent is that you get to watch one of the most delicate and unpredictable forms of growth: that of a child's sense of humor. It is sort of like that old chemistry experiment you did in the high-school lab growing copper sulphate crystals or some such. Unpredictable, amazing, and beautiful all at the same time.

And no doubt painful as well, as would be attested to by any parent pursued around the house by a child happily clutching a new book of riddles, puns, and one-liners, full of the child-like confidence that your happiness is very contingent on their reading out a seemingly unending number of hoary groan-inducing "jokes".

Why did the doughnut shop close?
The owner got tired of the hole business!

What's round and bad-tempered?
A vicious circle.

If your parents never had children, chances are you won't either.

What do you call the best butter on the farm?
The goat.

What do you get when you cross poison ivy with a four-leaf clover?
A rash of good luck.

A child's emerging sense of humor is delicate as a snowflake, as unique as a fingerprint, as unpredictable as their taste in food and more rewarding than any chest of treasure. To see a child "get it", their face worked over by laughter, is one of those ephemeral delights to which parents in particular are uniquely privileged.

What can I write about humor in children's books, which, in the writing, doesn't bludgeon it beyond recognition?

I guess the first important thing to say is that just because humor is a virtually impossible thing to define, categorize, and consciously develop, doesn't mean that we shouldn't encourage our children at least in the appreciation of a good joke, if not also the ability to tell one.

Humor is substantially dependent on recognizing that something is out of place, a pattern not complete, that some trick has been played on the brain and then the appreciation of the verbal sleight of hand. It requires attention to detail and an ability to imagine things different from what they are and an ability to see things from a different perspective.

Encouraging children to play with words and language and humor are essential ingredients to building the skills of story-telling and communication. Humor depends on the set-up, the twist, a sense of timing, and very much on reading one's audience. If you become good at joke telling and being a humorous raconteur, you will de facto have become a good story-teller.

Among the tightest ties that bind a family are the shared jokes that accumulate over the years, usually self-deprecatory, and often only a single step away from "you had to be there" in the capacity to be understood by others.

There is little that is as affirming, joyful and rewarding as sitting around with those nearest and dearest, sharing stories of our shared past and highlighting with gentle humor our respective roles. Emphasis on gentle.

One of the things that makes humor such a pivotal skill is that it often takes you to the frontier of the acceptable. How far can you go in pushing the buttons of a sibling? Just this far and they are laughing till they cry. A couple of buttons more and you have cut them to the quick, injured their feelings, or unleashed a volcano of retaliatory anger. The furnace of the family is where you first begin to learn how to be alert to all those subtle signals that help you navigate the frontier of appropriateness.

Which touches on one of the other burdens that parents endure: scatology as an endless source of humor, particularly for boys. Of course children need their boundaries of what are and are not socially acceptable topics of humor. We have usually given our children pretty simple guidelines - nothing that is intentionally hurtful and nothing scatological. What this means in practice is that when we are buying books (or checking them out of the library), I will pretty much buy anything they evince a genuine interest or enthusiasm for. If it is a book I think is pretty cretinous, I will still allow them to purchase it with their own money. The only ones I will neither purchase myself nor allow them to purchase themselves are those that either glorify malicious behavior or are scatological. How can our publishers so glibly put out some of these titles? Walter the Farting Dog, Captain Underpants, Attack of the Mutant Underwear, and on and on. If your child will read nothing other than these, so be it, but that would be pretty rare I would think.

In this first, general, collection of humorous books, our focus is on gentle humor that engages a child. There are a selection of jokes, narrative stories that keep you laughing, as well as some CD's from Prairie Home Companion that have both collections of jokes as well Garrison Keillor's superbly rendered humorous stories. Let us know your favorite books that bring a smile to the face of your child.

Picture Books

Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet Ahlberg and Allan Ahlberg Highly Recommended

Are You My Mother? by P. D. Eastman Recommendation

What Do You Do, Dear? by Sesyle Joslin and illustrated by Maurice Sendak Highly Recommended

What Do You Say, Dear by Sesyle Joslin and illustrated by Maurice Sendak Highly Recommended

Independent Reader

Mr. Popper's Penguins by Richard Atwater and Florence Atwater and illustrated by Robert Lawson Highly Recommended

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume and illustrated by Roy Doty Suggested

A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond and illustrated by Peggy Fortnum Highly Recommended

Riddles and More Riddles! by Bennett Cerf and illustrated by Debbie Palen Suggested

Ramona and Her Father by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Alan Tiegreen Recommended

The Twits by Roald Dahl and illustrated by Quentin Blake Recommended

Matilda by Roald Dahl and illustrated by Quentin Blake Recommended

My Naughty Little Sister by Dorothy Edwards and illustrated by Shirley Hughes Recommended

Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank B. Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey Highly Recommended

The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus by Joel Chandler Harris and illustrated by Barbara McClintock, Richard Chase and A. B. Frost Highly Recommended

Hoot by Carl Hiassen Recommended

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster Highly Recommended

The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren and illustrated by Michael Chesworth Highly Recommended

The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay Highly Recommended

Hello Mrs. Piggy-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald Recommendation

Homer Price by Robert McCloskey Recommendation

How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully Suggested

My Life and Hard Times by James Thurber Highly Recommended

Freddy the Detective by Walter R. Brooks and illustrated by Kurt Wiese Recommended

Young Adult

How to Attract the Wombat by Will Cuppy

How to Become Extinct by Will Cuppy

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell Highly Recommended

Antrobus Complete by Lawrence Durrell Highly Recommended

Pretty Good Joke Book by Garrison Keillor Recommended

The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody by Will Cuppy

The Dog Who Wouldn't Be by Farley Mowat Suggested

The Thurber Carnival by James Thurber Recommended

Spoken Word

A Few More Pretty Good Jokes by Garrison Keillor and Calvin Trillin Recommended

Humor by Garrison Keillor Recommended

Lake Wobegon USA by Garrison Keillor Recommended

Plenty Of Pretty Good Jokes by Garrison Keillor Recommended

News from Lake Wobegon by Garrison Keillor Recommended

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